Church in Decline

Church in Decline

A week or so ago, this piece of statistical data landed in my in-box. I have been trying to think of a way to communicate its significance ever since. See what you think.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. 18-29-year-olds who grew up in church tell Barna they have withdrawn from church involvement. And that was before the pandemic, when traditional means of ministry were still possible. Today, reaching Millennials and Gen Z is even harder – at a time when it’s never been more important.

Okay, so Barna are pitching for subscriptions to their “Barna Access Plus” membership, but that shouldn’t detract from the magnitutde of the problem it describes. The individuals surveyed are the PKs, the children of the vicarage/manse; it is the children of the Sunday school teachers and the worship team (or organist), the long-term church members, the “regulars”, the old reliable brigade, the pillars of the church who have kept the place together for the last twenty years. If anyone has been brought up “in the faith” it must be them.

The good news is that they have only withdrawn from church involvement; there is no comment about whether they have abandoned any position of faith. The Coronavirus situation has only accelerated the process – it was already well under way and, if the informal conversations I have been having for some years are representative, it has been happening for ten years or more.

So why haven’t we done anything about it? Well, firstly, perhaps, embarrassment. No pastor or leader wants to admit that his children no longer attend church. It used to be that they would go to another church to avoid the goldfish bowl syndrome and the need to behave perfectly so as not to disgrace their parents. But not to go anywhere? Leaders fear that their peers will judge them for failing to bring their children up in the faith, for failing on their primary home mission field. They are failing the biblical requirements for eldership. If they can’t even make sure that their own children become believers and walk with the L-rd, how can they possibly be fit to pastor and teach other familys’ children? So there is a conspiracy of silence because no-one wants to admit that their children have left the fold.

Secondly, the mainstream church is institutionally incapable of handling questions and doubt. Asking questions, challenging the cherished beliefs and tenets of the church – however sincerely or genuinely asked – is tantamount to rebellion or denying the “faith once delivered to the saints.” Many younger generation folk find it hard to accept a dogmatic statement and feel the need to explore it and understand the reasons for it – particularly if it seems contradictory or, sometimes, absurd – before they can embrace it. The church is traditionally bad at (and scared of) answering penetrating questions about what we believe and why; the questions throw us on to the back foot and force to become defensive. Those in positions of authority may become uncomfortable because the question undermines their own position on things that they wished they had been able to ask when they were young. Faced by the hostility that their questions and honest doubts or concerns seem to provoke, many of the younger generation simple vote with their feet and leave, rather than endure the disapprobation and disenfranchisement that their presence seems to provoke.

Thirdly, we need to accept that church as it is simply doesn’t meet the needs (in so many ways) of the younger generations. By a mile! That isn’t to say that youngsters should be pandered to and offered lots of cuddly entertainment to keep them in church. Far from it! But it does mean that we need to have a radical rethink of what the church offers, the way services are conducted and for whom, and how society has changed over the last fifty years. The oldies mustn’t be disenfranchised or excluded from church, heaven forfend, but we can’t continue to provide services that are designed with the 60+ age-group in mind and expect the 18-29s to be interested. Of course, we mustn’t bring the world into the church; too much of that has already been tried and shown to have failed miserably. But we must recognise that the maxim of age-appropriate worship – so glibly applied to children’s ministry – is just as relevant for older youth, young adults, new families and everybody else in the congregation. As the saying goes: horses for courses.

Coronavirus, for all its difficulties and sadness, has brought us a golden divinely given opportunity to press the reset button and make sweeping changes throughout the church and rebuild everything after a six-month (or more) break from what went before. We must not, we cannot, simply go back to the same old same old. Otherwise, that’s exactly what we will get: the same old same old. And will the last person to leave the building please turn out the lights.

Now is the moment – well, actually, it should have started the bets part of six months ago – to be planning the changes that you are going to make in your church or congregation, whether you are the leader, a member or simply someone who goes occasionally. Things have to change, even if in the last resort, to apply for permission to demolish and redevelop the land as a brown-field site. Are you open to hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches?

first published at Frothing at the Mouth